|Diana Wynne Jones: Power of Three
||[Nov. 1st, 2014|10:53 pm]
Had we but world enough and time, I would have prepared for the Diana Wynne Jones conference by re-reading everything she ever wrote in order of publication. In this imperfect world, my re-reading was much more random: a couple of particular favourites (Fire and Hemlock and The Homeward Bounders), a couple of books which featured prominently among the titles to be discussed, but of which I had only a hazy recollection (The Lives of Christopher Chant and Hexwood) and Power of Three, taken from the shelf, as I said, in a spirit of 'Oh, might as well re-read one of the early ones...' Power of Three was the only one of these which gave me any surprises: I continued to love the books I knew I loved, and to enjoy but not find exceptionally memorable the books I - well, you get the drift. And then there was Power of Three, so clever, so inventive, so - powerful. Where did that come from?
Some of my surprise can be explained by the fact that I had misremembered the place of Power of Three in the sequence of novels: I had been thinking of it as very early, the third of DWJ's books for children*. In fact it is the seventh, between Cart and Cwidder and Charmed Life - still early, but as the author was really hitting her stride. Its beginnings were much earlier - Laura Cecil told us that it was written over a period of eight years - and in those beginnings it had been a very different book. For one thing, it was set in a valley in Wales (which I suppose makes more sense of the threat to flood the site for a reservoir). Laura Cecil's suggestion that Otmoor would be a suitable setting seems to have unblocked the narrative. It's not a location I know (another reason why I was so grateful for Victoria Symons slide which lined up the three panoramic photographs of the three locations of the book: the mound, the wetlands, the farmhouse), except that having read the book, I felt as if I did: surely that story could never have happened anywhere else?
Another change from earlier drafts - as I was able to see for myself in that brief visit to the archives - is that the story originally began with the Giants. One of the things I love and admire about the final version is the way the reader is invited from the start to identify with "the children of Adara" Lymen, magic users and mound-dwellers. The Giants are fearsome Others: yet as soon as we meet them, it is obvious that they are us. As Victoria Symons says, "this is a novel in which perspectives are constantly shifted and refocused." Her fascinating paper also points out that naming conventions align the three population groups with three groups from the English Middle Ages: the Lymen have Gaelic names, the Dorig Scandinavian and the Giants Anglo-Saxon. From the earliest stages of the narrative there are clues that although we seem to be dealing with three different species, the differences of size, habitat and magic-use are greater in perception than in reality; ultimately they will be overcome so that all can unite to exercise the power of three.
By the time the book was published, it began: "This is the story of the children of Adara - " A novel by Diana Wynne Jones which introduces its central characters in terms of their parent? This is unusual. It's a commonplace of children's fiction that some means has to be found to remove the adults who would otherwise restrict the scope for the children to have adventures, but I had noticed long before I knew anything about her own childhood that Diana Wynne Jones often skipped this formality: she didn't bother the explain the absence of responsible adults from her books. Over the years I have come to assume that this applies to all her books, yet in Power of Three the adults are very much present. Events are set in motion by an incident involving Adara and her brother, so that the reader shares information with the older generation which is hidden from the younger generation: we follow the narrative from Gair's point of view, but as he tries to puzzle out what is going on, and what has happened in the past, we have clues that he lacks.
What is more, this matters to him. The actions of the older generation shape both the problems that confront the children and the solution they ultimately find, so it matters at a plot level, but more than this, it matters emotionally to Gair. He wants not to disappoint his father, and he wants not to be disappointed by him, though he is afraid that Gest has somehow cheated in accomplishing the tasks that won him his bride**.
As he has, of course. Gest has found himself in a traditional fairytale situation, and has applied intelligence to make it work out for him - and a willingness to cross tribal boundaries which his son shares, and with which they will ultimately bring about the happy ending. This is characteristic of the way DWJ approaches familiar magical motifs in Power of Three. So the Dorig who has the misfortune to be caught by Orban in that opening encounter is sunning a gold collar: "You have to sun gold, or it turns back to earth again." I love this explanation of the way that fairy gold is liable to turn into leaves overnight.
There are, inevitably, things about Power of Three that I don't love. Poor Brenda is one of them. Gerald is loud and clumsy because he is a Giant and because he is unhappy, and these things are overcome as the story progresses. But Brenda is fat and lower class, and the narrative condescends to her; shhe is well-intentioned, but limited. A pet hate of mine appears in the first sentence of the book: as soon as we learn that Ayna and Ceri have gifts, but that Gair "thought he was ordinary", we know that Gair will turn out to have the best gift of all. Saying that Gair thought he was ordinary makes it explicit, but even without that, it's inevitable***. I won't say that these are details, because a book is made up of details, but they are overshadowed by the aspects of the book that I do like, very much indeed.
ETA: Except not. As steepholm so delicately reminds me in the comments, what brought Otmoor to Laura Cecil's attention in the first place was probably a press report of threats to flood it. Was this threat already part of the story, and the reason Otmoor struck her as a suitable location, or did she hand DWJ location and Big Bad Thread in one tidy package?
*I don't know why I was so convinced of this non-fact. Was it just the power of that 'three' in the title?
**The difficulty of the father-and-son relationship is one of the characteristics Gair recognises in Gerald, and it echoes through the book. For that matter, it is a major theme in Cart and Cwidder which precedes Power of Three and in Drowned Ammet which follows it.
***I have the same problem with Aileen in The Islands of Chaldea, who is convinced, against all the evidence, that she has failed to have a crucial vision: I want to shake her. Naturally, she turns out to be the Wisest Wise Woman of them all...